Darren McGarvey (2017) Poverty Safari.


Darren McGarvey was talking about his book in Dalmuir library on Wednesday. He spoke with passion, without notes, for over an hour. That takes some doing. I said to him  I knew before I’d read his book I’d probably agree with what he was saying. He’s one of us. There is different names for it. He calls it ‘the underclass’. It’s in the title. Poverty Safari: Understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass. Words matter.

I’d just call it working class. There’s no under about it. The benchmark is The Ragged Trousered Philantrhopist a book set in the early twentieth century but with many lessons that are still relevant today, perhaps more so, with all the flag waving at the royal wedding yesterday.

I read his book on Thursday. I’ve made some notes which some might call a review. I’m a reader, which, of course, gives you superpowers. The most powerful pieces of Darren’s book are the stories about himself and his family. His mum was an alcoholic who died aged 36 when Darren was 17. They lived in Pollock. Darren no longer lives in Pollock.

If he gets married £30 million of public money will not be spent on security for his wedding. Millions more on cleaning up Pollock before and afterwards.

Darren asks is in what ways are the old me different from the new me? Robert Burns in his address To A Louse nailed the posturing of the middle classes.  O Jeany, dinna toss your head/ An’ set your beauties a’ abread!/… O wad some Power the giftie gie us /To see oursels as ithers see us!/ It wad frae mony a blunder free us, /An’ foolish notion:

Knowing yourself is a religious calling. I’m quite attached to such foolish notions. And I certainly don’t know myself, but through reading I get to know others better.  I’m biased. I like calling Tory scum. I’m quoting Nye Bevan, but nothing much has changed.

Chapter 30, ‘The Metamorphosis’:

 I never got sober, at least for any length of time, until I admitted to myself that many of the predicaments in my adult life were of my own making. This, of course, is another taboo subject on the left. The idea of taking personal responsibility wherever you can and that is an important virtue in life.

Let’s look at AA’s Big Book and the (moral) premise made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Saul on the road to Damascus became blind. Something like scales fell from his eyes. Darren has taken a moral inventory, and having taken the mote out of his eye thinks he can see clearly. I don’t believe personal responsibility is taboo on the left or right. I do believe that the Tory scum sell fear and sow disorder. The only monopoly they acknowledge is the monopoly they have on virtue. And I’m with Blaise Pascal on ‘the only shame is to have is none.’ Look at Grenfell tower and weep as the Tory leader and Tory scum at the Royal boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea council scuttle away from responsibility and play the blame game.

One of the vices Darren admits too is junk food. I watched kids in the playground running about yesterday. One of them was a fat kid waddling about chasing his friend. It made me sad. I felt sorry for the boy and others like him. But far more dangerous is junk ideas. Unthinking with other’s thoughts.

By now, I’ve hopefully established that one of the biggest problems we face as a society is stress; how is shapes us as individuals, families and communities; how it directs the thinking that drives our behaviour and things we do to manage it; and how these coping strategies impact our families and communities. Stress is the connective tissue between social problems such as addiction, violence and chronic illnesses as well as the crises in our public services. I’ve even argued that stress even plays a part in shaping the tone and substance of our political debate and subsequent direction of our society.

Poverty is not about a lack of money. Eh, aye it is Darren. That’s the message Jeremy Corbyn is selling.  The default setting for Tory scum is it’s not only about money. It’s their fault. Those people are not one of us.  George Osborne picks on those outliers, people like Darrren’s family to peddle the idea that resources are wasted on them. They create caricatures and peddle them as propaganda that are fed back to us by the media as the truth. We self-mutilate with these lies.

Show me the money. £50 million of public money paid to rich kids in Grammar schools. And as Thomas Piketty showed gathering historical data this is a worldwide trend of money moving from the poorest to the richest citizen at an increasing rate, most notably, in the richest nations of the world. Britain is a good place to live if you’re rich.

The idea of banning McDonalds or modifying my own lifestyle and taking personal responsibility reminds me of a conversation I had with someone that was on a macrobiotic diet. He tried to convince me that if Hitler had been on a macrobiotic diet the Second World War wouldn’t have happened. Stress and a poor diet were synonyms for each other. They changed the world.

A wee story. Wullie, a successful business man, with the big house and a mobile home worth the price of a house thinks people in Drumchapel and Ferguslie Park are lazy bastards that don’t want to work. He can say that because he was brought up in Ferguslie and moved to Drumchapel. Both areas are poor by any measure, but he is now relatively rich. Lived experience trumps the paper tigers we put on the page to fight our rhetorical battles. This is Wullie and Darren’s strength.

Darren’s message is the personal is political. A throwback to the counterculture of flower power and the sixties. Yes, it’s true. Undeniably so. But let’s not forget people who hold the big stick and take delight in beating you with it for your own good belong to one class and we belong to another. They have won the propaganda war. We have lost most of the post-war gains that were made up until around the mid-seventies and they have gone back to the ways of the rich. The billionaies. Oligarchs. The 1%. The upperclass.  We the working class are being fucked over good and proper (no excuse for the language) and they want us to smile and say thank you. Fuck you, I say. Fuck you, Maggie Thatcher and all Tory scum. That’s personal. That’s political.  Moral inventory, let them make amends for the damage they have wrought on people like me with their foodbanks and hatred of us and I’ll change my point of view.   More chance of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. It’s not impossible, but highly unlikely.


Jane Harris (2017) Sugar Money.

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The story behind the story of Sugar Money seems the usual hokum of a neighbour digging out an unpublished manuscript which turns out to be the extraordinary story of Lucien, a ten-year old slave boy. How he and his elder brother Emile, in a few weeks in December, 1765, got involved in a remarkable attempt to liberate slaves from slavery and bring them back into, em, slavery. Read the title again and you’ll understand – money. When money is involved greed talks.

Rabbie Burns, despite his talk about love being like a red, red, rose would understand. He planned to emigrate to the West Indies and make his fortune. And a regiment of Glasgow Greys were stationed in Grenada and play a key part in the novel’s plot.

For Father Cleopas, of St Pierre, Martinque, Western Antilles, les Freres de la Charite, it’s all black and white. His order of friars had taken out loans to purchase slaves to help tend the sick in the hospital they maintained on a sister island in Grenada, but the order of friars were reliant on the wealth created by the slave labour working the plantations initially growing indigo, later sugar cane. Even more money could be made by distilling sugar cane into rum.  That required even more labour. Father Cleopas’s solution was to steal slaves from other slave owners. His reasoning was  even thought the English had conquered  Grenada the slaves were not part of the island but part of The Brothers’ of Charity  property portfolio. Father Cleopas created a document and gave it to Emile, who is illiterate, as justification for his theft and tells him that it has been signed by the English Colonial Governor on Grenada. Illiterate does not mean stupid. Emile does not believe Father Cleopas, but he’s been told, like a mulatto Moses, go and gather together 42 slaves and all there descendants and I’ll arrange a ship and we’ll bring them home. Home, of course, is a nebulous idea.

Lucien the first-person narrator imagines it as a big adventure. Emile tries to talk Father Cleopas out of taking Lucien with him, asks a friendly French soldier to take him off the yawl they are travelling on before they leave harbour and asks the supposedly deaf and dumb English sailor of the boat to take him back to Martinque. The narrator thinks his big brother is treating him as a child, part of the charm is Lucien puffing himself up to be a man. Emile simply wants to save his brother. He knows better than most he’s been sent on a suicide mission. He tries to talk sense into him by about ‘How many runaway stories you heard about in Grenada?’ Then give him a dose of reality.

Sharks…Nowhere safe to paddle that’s close enough. All those islands owned by the Beke and no matter be they French or English, Spanish or Dutch, they all have us under the yoke.

To be black is to be less valuable than a cow Lucien later works out for himself. The great escape attempt is peopled by real characters. Just because they’re black doesn’t make them novel savages. Saturnin, the overseer, for example, organises a group of young and fit slaves, mainly men, but some women that can travel swiftly on foot around the island and they are prepared to leave the old and sick and nursing mothers behind to fend for themselves. Survival of the fittest.

Emile makes it clear that he’ll help whoever wants to escape and he’ll travel with the slow-moving party, but everyone must make their own mind up whether they want to take the chance of being caught and punished.

When a man in a thing, punishment can come in many forms. Rape of women, mulatto children such as Lucien and Emile are the product of greed and seed. Stripping of a man’s back with metal-tipped whips are a given in their society in which life tends to be nasty, brutish and short. But the English settler or Goddams as they are termed here with spike metal collars on slaves, missing hands and fingers, stumps for arms, ears nailed to wooden doors and having men shitting in other men’s mouths and wiring the jaw shut for several days tends to make anywhere else a better deal, even breaking bread with the lecherous, rapist, greedy Brothers of Charity on Martinique. It’s a heart of darkness scenario, in short, the kind Joseph Conrad later wrote about in the nineteenth century Belgian Congo.

Jane Harris turns over the rock of the world of them and us. Her boyish narrator thinks he can save the world. Ah, poor, deluded soul, with nowhere to run, it’s an adventure story of last man standing, but more than that it’s a morality play. We no longer whip black people do we?   We no longer lock black people up in cages do we? We no longer make the poor labour and toil endless hours to feed the rich, do we? Of course not. That’s all gut-rot ideas and  Sugar money.

Kalahari Bushmen are really Scotsmen in disguise.

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Kalahari Bushmen have lived in southern Africa for over 150 000 years, perhaps longer, no one was counting, but, roughly, almost as long as Scotsmen have lived in Scotland. Like the Scotsmen they are in exile in their own land. Marginalised they have managed to eke out an existence and survive and prosper ‘working’ as little as fifteen hours a week hunting and gathering. They adapted and made a good living wherever they went based on sharing what they had. No scarcity. No surplus. No what Robert Burns in his poem Man Was Made To Mourn, ‘A hundred labour to support/ A haughty lordling’s pride.’ The Scottish institution of slagging folk off that though they were something special is the key to the Kalahari tribesmen’s survival.

Of course some Kalahari tribesmen were better hunters then others. But when he brought back the trophy of say a young antelope to eat, he’d be put in his place in case he got above himself. The Scottish equivalent of your da would have brought back something better than that, he’d brought back a couple of elephants and at least one tiger. And the meat looks stringy. We’ll be lucky if we get a bite out of it. The best thing we can do is probably bury it without denting our teeth.

In the same way our footballers are slagged off for only scoring hat tricks, which should really have been four or five. And a goalkeeper’s amazing save would be described as the ba hitting him on the hand. The invention of penicillin by Alexander Fleming as an accident waiting to happen. Modern life and the rejection of Tory scaremongering is something we learned from our Kalahari forbearers.  I’m sure they’d have a thing to say about Cameron, May et al. The principle of inequality is something they wouldn’t understand. I’m not sure I understand it either. Our ancient way of life is under threat by some recent poisonous fad.

Robert Burns, Halloween

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Robert Burn’s poem Halloween was in many ways a sidelong glance at many of the rites, ritual and superstitions of an Ayrshire lad and farmer’s son in a Christian community of  1785 rural Scotland.

Some merry friendly country folks

Together they convene,

To burn their nits and pon their stocks,

And haud their Halloween.

Of course you could tell a lot about a person by the type of lice they had. And in his poem To A Louse it showed that the wee beasties were no respecter of rank. Each nit is named after a lad or lassie and those nits that burn together prophesies they will stay together. Those nits that jump and start from one another imply the courtship will be fiery and perhaps come to grief.

The auld guidwife’s weel-hoordit nits

And round and round divided,

And many lads’ and lasses’ fates,

Are that night  decided.

But the first ceremony of Halloween is the pulling of the kail (kale). Hand in hand partners must go with their eyes shut and pull out the first kail they touch. Its root crooked or straight, big or small will spell out their future husband or wife. The runts of the kail crop are placed above the head of the door and visitors to the house are given the honour of placing them and alluding to the runt in question and who will meet their match.

Then first foremost through the kail,

Their stocks maun a’ be saught ance,

They stuck their een, and graip and wale,

For muckle anes and straight anes,

Poor hav’rel Will fell aff the drift,

And wander’d through the bow-kail,

And pou’t for want o’ better shift,

A runt was like a sow-tail,

Sae bow’t that night.

You can tell a lot, of course, from a man or maid’s corn or oats. They have a pick of three and each will tell what kind of courtship will be and whether the maid will remain a maid, or unmade.

The lasses staw frae among them a’

To pou their stalks of corn:

The hempseed spell is an invocation that brings the future beloved to the mind’s eye, or indeed puts in a personal appearance. By sewing hempseed and harrowing it behind you and repeating the invocation: Hempseed I saw thee, hempseed I saw thee; and him (or her) that is to be my true love, come after me and pou thee. Looking over the left shoulder the invoker of the spell will see their true love.

He got hempseed I mind it weel,

And he made unco’ light o’t;

But many a day was by himsel,

He was sae sairly frighted

That very night.


Then up get fetchin’ Jamie Fleck

And he swore by his conscience

That he could saw hemp seek a peek

For it was a’ but nonsense


…He roared a horrid murder-shout

In dreadfu’ desperation

And young and auld came runnin’ out

To hear the sad narration:

He swore ‘twas hilchin Jean McCraw

Or crouchie Merran Humphie,

Similarly the winnowing of corn can be a predictor of fate. This charm must be done alone. Opening the barn doors and taking them off the hinges if possible so as not to trap unwanted spirits inside with you and do you harm. Take the wecht, the instrument used to winnow corn and go through the ritual of flinging the corn in the air and letting the wind blow through it. Repeat the action three times. On the third attempt an apparition will pass through one door of the barn and out the other. From its appearance or retinue the person casting the charm will be able to tell his or her future prospects in life.

Meg fain wad to the barn hae gaen,

To win three wechts of naething;

But for to meet the deil her lane,

She puts but little faith in


… A ratton rustled up the wa’,

And she cried Lord preserve her!

And ran through midden hole and a’,

And prayed with zeal and fervour,

Fu’ fast that night.

A similar spell involved stacking of crops, fashioning it in a particular way so that in the last attempt the invoker will for a second catch in his arms his future partner yoked to him.

They hoy’t out Will, wi’ sair advice;

The hecht him some fine braw ane;

He chance’d the stack he faddom’t thrice,

Was timmer-propt for thrawin’

Other spells involve the elements of water and fire. Here ‘the wanton widow Leezie’ dips her left shirt sleeve in a south-running stream. By the fire that night she hangs the wet sleeve to dry. At midnight her future beloved or object of desire will appear and turn the sleeve to dry the other side of the garment.

She through the whinns and by the cairns,

And owre the hill gaed scrievin,

Where three lairds land meet at a burn,

To dip her left sark sleeve in

Was bent that night.

In the final stanzas Burns pokes fun at poor auld Uncle John. I guess the laughs on us, poor auld Uncle John is probably aged about 30. A charm is made with three buckets representing three future outcomes. He or she is blindfold and led to the hearth and he or she dips his left hand into one of the three buckets ranged in front of him or her. If he picks clean water his wife will come to the marriage bed a virgin. Dirty water means she’s not a virgin, perhaps a widow. If he dips his hand into an empty bucket then he will remain unmarried. Great care is taken in swapping the buckets about and the blindfold man or maid repeats the same action three times in a row.

In order, on the clean hearth-stane,

The luggies three are arranged.

And every time great care is ta’en

To see them duly changed:

And Uncle John, wha wedlock’s joys

Sin’ Mar’s year did desire.

Because he gat the toom’s dish thrice,

He heaved them on the fire

In wrath that night.

Casting spells, conjuring ghost and predictions of the future, for farming folk, for Christian folk, Halloween was a bit of fun, which they took seriously always looking over their left shoulder and waiting for the devil to appear.

John Lewis-Stempel (2016) Where Poppies Blow. The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War.


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John Lewis-Stempel’s Where Poppies Blow is a hotchpot of different things. That’s usually a criticism, but in this case this is the books strength. Pre-war England is the baseline, a kind of Arcadia to which the British soldier on the front’s mind often returns. Fuck off I say to that kind of crap. The majority of troops came from slum housing and if they were lucky enough to be in regular employments worked between 12 and 15 hours a day for 364 days a year and were considered old by the time they were thirty and ancient by the age of forty. Yet trenches that divided warring nations were a great leveller. An officer, which was a shorthand for a gentleman, and the working class, really were in it together and shared the same bit of dirt and while the former had it slightly easier with better rations, where more likely to end up dead or injured.  Britain, generally, was an animal loving nation, regardless of class.

The other great social leveller Robert Burn recognised in his poem ‘To a Louse’ was lice. ‘Lice observed neither rank nor class.’  A ‘cootie hunt’ was the creed of the trenches. Rats were also fair game, but this war the British soldiers lost. Rats outbred any attempts at controlling them and corpses galore to feed on they grew to the size of legend and treated the living and the dead with equal contempt. One of the positive effects of German gas attacks was it killed many of the rats, but they quickly recovered a decomposed foothold.  Fungal infections such as clostridium perfringes, ‘Trench foot’ sent 20 000 to hospital in the first winter of 1914-15 and this was combined with bacillius fustiformis helping to produce the ulcerating gingivitis ‘Trench Mouth’. Foot and mouth disease wasn’t confined to animals. A Great War for microbes.

Just under a million British army hospital admissions for sickness were made in 1918, with just under 10 000 deaths. At the end of the war 500 permanent cemeteries were created with 400 000 headstones. [Compare this to the over 27 million and upwards killed in the USSR to give you some idea of scale, or indeed, the almost 500 000 American troops sent overseas to Vietnam ostensibly to fight Communism in 1969].

At the end of the War To End All Wars the Animal War Museum’s plaque in Kilburn commemorated the 484 143 horses, mules, camels and bullocks, hundreds of dogs, carrier pigeons and other creatures that died working for the armed forces.

In contrast, 11th November 1918, 735 409 horses and mules and 56 287 camels were given their demob papers. Their fate, like the working class soldier, was to be put on the market. The book ends with a quote from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade End: ‘How are we to live? How are we to ever live?’

I prefer Burn’s version: To a Mouse:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominon

Has broken nature’s social union

And justifies that ill opinion

…But mousie, that art no thy lane,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Gang aft a’gley,

And lea’s us nought but grief and pain

For promised joy…



Richard Holloway (2004) Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning.

looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic.  This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.

The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.

Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.

Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:

All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.

Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and  saying,  no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.

Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’for thy glory.

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou has left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace,

A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,

To a’ this place.’

Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion:

Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:

Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’

To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?

Thomas Piketty Capital  quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are  quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.

Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right,  and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.

Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.

‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’

Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?


Elena Ferrante (2016) Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey.

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Elena Ferrante (2016) Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey.

All writers are historians. Subject and object. Subjecting what we know with what other people know. In other words, we read to write. We look for resonance in our writing and our reading. And sometimes somebody says it better and you’ve just got to acknowledge mastery. This is an honest book, a beautiful book in so many ways. When I start taking notes— Papers: 1991-2003; Tesserae 2003-2007; Letters 2011-2016—I find that I’ve copied word for word all 384 pages of questions and answers and it will take me another lifetime to read it, but if I pluck open any page there will be wisdom and advice. One often translates into the other as Ferrante’s Italian is translated into English and other languages, but the resonance of meaning remains true. This is a book, not so much about writing, but about living.

Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. If you want to look for her, she asks you to look for her in her writing, in her novels. The media obsession with who a writer is unhealthy and unnecessary. A good book will find an audience of willing and receptive readers. This is counterintuitive advice. As a crowdfunded author, published by Unbound (Lily Poole) I should be a critic of this approach, not an admirer. I’ll let you into a secret, crowdfunding doesn’t work, even when it does. Another way of putting this, of putting Ferrante in her place, is claiming she is saying nothing new. We don’t need to know, for example, who William Shakespeare, Robert Burns or the J.D Salinger was to appreciate their work. The message of Robert M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was the idea that somehow quality created its own momentum and would stand out. A conflation of both ideas is To Kill a Mocking Bird and Go Set a Watchman. Both had millions of world-wide readers and are financial success stories, but only one is readable. That’s a value call. A value judgement. The inference is my book flopped because it wasn’t marketed well enough, I wasn’t marketed well enough, or it was rubbish and therefore found no readers.  A combination of all three is the most likely answer. Because despite what Ferrante says, much of which purist ideology I agree with, a book I’ve never read, or intend to read has sold 125 million copies and, like Ferrante’s work, two films so far created, based on the book.. It relied on social media, word of mouth marketing and the fan-fiction community. Fifty Shades of Grey breaks all of Ferrante’s rules. And the power of social media is Trumpeted by the election of the moron’s moron as the most powerful man on earth.

After a book is published, let a book find its own way is not something Ferrante preaches. It is something she did. On the media she writes of a common predicament for the nobody of which she is champion:

Is a book from the media point of view, above all the name of the person who writes it? Is it the fame of the author or, rather the author personality who takes the stage thanks to the media, a crucial support for the book? Isn’t it newsworthy, for the cultural pages, that a good book has been published? Is it newsworthy instead, that a name able to say something to editorial offices in on the cover or some book or other?

Writing is not a game of winner takes all and stacking up the number of sales. Ferrante argues, ‘Novels should never come with instructions for use, least of all by those who write them.’ But Ferrante is saying something more than that. She is saying that writing is a private act made public. Not all writing should however be published. And not all writers have attained the skills necessary to say what they are hoping to say. I include myself in that group.  Writing which is published should be able to stand alone. And women in publishing, as in life, find it far more difficult to succeed. That’s not feminism, just fact.  This is a constant motif of her novels. ‘I’ve described women at moments when they are absolutely alone. But in their heads there is never silence or even focus. The most absolute solitude, at least in my experience, and not just as narrator, is always, to paraphrase… ‘too loud’.’ Men explode. Women implode. Melina Cappucino, the ‘mad widow’ in My Brilliant Friend, is a constant, a fragment of a life also held up to the light, similar women, but not stereotypical characters feature in  The Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love. The idea of the ‘other’ not being other, but us, is something in these troubling times we need to keep hold of.  We need to be aware of in the fight ahead. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, yes, she is indeed. Read her.

Robert Burns – The Scottish Bard.

a very peculiar history.jpg

Fiona Macdonald (2011)  Robert Burns. A Very Peculiar History.

This is a children’s book or a primer. ‘With the Bards own rhymes’. That suits me. I was once a child, and I’m always ready to be primed. Ignorance is a great motivation. I once shared a desk with the august figure of Professor Gerry Carruthers, Director of the Robert Burns Centre, University of Glasgow. I don’t remember him as being particularly smart, or brainy, as we used to call it. His recollections of me would I guess be as an eejit, best avoided. I suppose it should be Professor Carruther’s book on Burns I should read. But I can’t really be bothered. If he reads my book I’ll read his.

As Hugh MacDiarmid, nationalist, and poet (A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle) says of Burns: ‘Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name – than in ony’s barrin liberty and Christ’.

This is easy for me, because I’ll just follow the Futureshock course questions and that’s a bit like copying someone else’s answers, even though they are your own.

What does Robert Burns mean to you?

What little I’ve read of Burns what struck me most is his humility in search of a muse, and a good drink, of course. And his anger at the way some people are looked down on by those lucky few who have inherited a bob or two.

Here’s what Gerry Carruthers says (and he should know).

‘Even the idea of the ‘native language’, Scots, is here far from straightforward, since from 1784, Burns had been reading the Scots poetry of two earlier eighteenth-century writers in particular, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. The really clever trick that Burns pulled off was in bringing Scots poetry back into vogue within the west of Scotland, including not only the Scots language but the ‘Habbie Simson’ stanza that we see, for instance, in ‘To a Mouse’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/to_a_mouse/).

From his mother and other female relatives, Robert Burns imbibed a love of Scots song, and just as he disinterred the Scots poetry of Ramsay and Fergusson, so too he became an avid collector and editor of older Scots songs, as well as writing many new ones himself.


‘It is perhaps in the songs more than the poetry that Burns’s colourful set of identities explodes. His song ‘Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hyj6c5VPLHQ&list=PLWJo7KojlfaGjcKa4rco_Eki32YEZNbMJ&index=16) looks back with regret on the union of parliaments in 1707 and ‘Scots Wha Hae’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgskbClWZ68&list=PLWJo7KojlfaGjcKa4rco_Eki32YEZNbMJ&index=14)

celebrates his hero William Wallace, the thirteenth-century Scottish leader, against the attempted colonization of Scotland by England. This text though – like ‘Is there for Honest Poverty’ (‘A Man’s a Man For ‘a That’) –( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hudNoXsUj0o&list=PLWJo7KojlfaGjcKa4rco_Eki32YEZNbMJ&index=18)


‘Less open to interpretation, perhaps, is Burns’s status as a lover. Here we have a man who, on the most conservative estimate, made at least five women pregnant on at least thirteen occasions and who sired at least twelve children.


‘Out of a clearly turbulent biography, however, emerged some of the finest love songs ever: ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMmtBgMaF5I&list=PLWJo7KojlfaGjcKa4rco_Eki32YEZNbMJ&index=2)



‘A Red Rose’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtV5a42dlUI&index=5&list=PLWJo7KojlfaGjcKa4rco_Eki32YEZNbMJ)

and many others (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLuKGirqgIs&list=PLWJo7KojlfaGjcKa4rco_Eki32YEZNbMJ&index=20).

‘In the final analysis, what we are left with are Burns’s writings, and among these, perhaps, the songs about love are the least ambiguous and the most passionate.

‘Burns was a writer born in 1759 and dead by July 1796, at the early age of 37. He was also a farmer in two different periods of his life, and an Exciseman – a salaried government employee – through the 1790s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYfvbQjl9Ek&list=PLWJo7KojlfaGjcKa4rco_Eki32YEZNbMJ&index=19).

Ignorance and poverty, Burns writes in 1787. ‘We lived very poorly…A novel writer might have viewed those scenes with some satisfaction, but so did not I; my indignation yet boils at the recollection of the scoundrel tyrants [landlord’s factor who wrote threatening eviction when William Burns (Robert’s father) was unable to pay the rent] threatening epistles, which used to set us all in tears’.

Here’s a secret, Burns did not look like a young Scottish Elvis. He looked like he was a Scottish farmer, with a ba’ face. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtesXpGFIDY Not that it matter, his words and songs live on. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/address_to_a_haggis/)





The Problem with Donald J Trump is Donald J Trump.


Donald J Trump’s mother, Mary came from the Isle of Lewis. There’s more than one Scottish word for her son. Bawbag is a good Scottish word to start with.

Perhaps Robert Burns, our national bard,  put it better in The Cotter’s Saturday Night, the kind of dwelling his mother Mary came from:

An honest man’s the noblest work of God;

And certes in fair virtue’s heavenly road;

What is a lording’s pomp? a cumbrous load,

Disguising oft the wretch of human kind,

Studied in arts of hell, in wickedness refin’d

Here’s Donald J’s take on intelligence. He holds up his first-born son for the camera and tells his audience he wants his son to be ‘strong, tough and vicious and I hope intelligent.’ Intelligence is an afterthought, and add on. Being vicious that’s the thing. Be a killer.

Donald is his father, Fred’s son. Freddy’s first born wasn’t smart. He did dumb things like when he was put in charge of a housing project he gave the tenants new window. Donald’s take on that was he was soft, a great guy, very, very intelligent, everybody liked him, but they took advantage of him.

I’m not as dumb as George W Bush and its worth remembering when it came to counting the chads in 2000, an election he lost, asked for a recount because he’d ran out of fingers and toes, but the numbers came up right and he won, even though he didn’t know who or what a chad was. Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife’s narrator is a bookish girl that grows into a woman that marries somebody like George W Bush, who can’t be trusted to run the family firm and becomes United States President to keep him out of harm’s way. Lionel Shriver asks much the same question of Donald J Trump, that most writers do, ‘Faced with current reality, how can fiction compete?’

Donald J Trump cheerfully admits he is a cartoon character and yet he is the forty-fifth President of the United States. I’d like to say I predicted that. And I did, I did, but I’ve a tendency to say when playing The Chase on telly when the correct answer is read out, and out of three options I’ve got some part of it wrong, most part of it wrong, but I’m right because that’s the one I meant. Lining up reality and opinion is not always that easy, but fantasy always figures and finds the shortest route and in a post-factual society finds its way to the truth, by not being the truth, or a neologism in the Oxford dictionary, but a simulacrum. Who really cares about that stuff?  I like to quote Socrates, ‘Speak so I can see you,’ so that I can seem more intelligent. If we tried that experiment with Trump taking away his orange face, shiny suit and swept back blond mop and left the screen blank and simply listened to him, you’d laugh, because he lisps  and not like an eight-year old girl, but not Liza Simpson, and that’s a fact that’s been tested. You’d be saying grow up. Read a book. Something else Donald J admits he never does. Only dumb smucks have the time to read. But he’s published an international bestseller. The Art of the Deal. He didn’t write it, of course, but it’s his, because it’s got his name on the cover. Tony Schwatz who wrote the book shadowed Trump. He liked that, people following him about, disciples. A kid showing you his toys. Matt Damon mentioned it in a recent interview. Trump’s propensity to pop up when they were filming on his property and sneak into shot.  You see a snapshot of it in Anthony Bartlett’s Dispatches programme entitled President Trump’s Dirty Secrets. In truth his connection to big oil and his disdain for little people isn’t much of a secret. Any dolt with an internet connection can spend five minutes and find out everything that you need to know about Trump and even Putin’s not-so-secret dossier of Trump cavorting with two prostitutes in a hotel room and them peeing on a bed. Look more closely at the images outside the hotel room and you’ll see him squeezing the flesh of contestants at the Miss Universe contest, a project which he bought and owns. Perhaps he plans to buy a contestant and bring her home and put on the mantlepiece to replace Melanina. Before he buys he likes to try them, not that he’d know what droit de seigneur means, but he understand enough to know that the people that buy the land owns the people in the land and that give him the right to push up against them and feel them up. He’s admitted as much, boy’s stuff, locker-room chat. Not rape, of course, because the women were gagging for it. His lawyers say so.  And his toys are irresistible. Trump is happy hosting. See as an example Bartlett schmoozing in his car, Trump’s telling him how much the car cost and how the seat-belts are gold, yeh, real gold.

But Trump knows about discipline. He was sent to a military school when he went too far and his father, Fred, found he’d bought a flick knife. One of his classmates remembered him as being, and I’m thinking how to paraphrase this, an empty jacket. Someone that is hanging on the peg but isn’t all there. Psychopath, devoid of compassion, all human feelings, apart from vanity. Schwartz tells how Trump liked to start the day with what was in the news about him. Narcissus looking into a stream of photo feeds. Now he’s won the biggest beauty contest in the world, the American Presidency it will be a full-time job. The worry is he’ll not like what he sees or hears. A multiple bankrupt that has never been poor. A groper and potential rapist that has never been called to account or arrested. A non-tax payer whose father’s business was based on scamming the federal dollar to build houses for ex-servicemen. A Manhattan businessman that broke Federal laws and refused to sell or lease apartments to blacks and explained to young persecuting attorney, Elyse Goldweather, in an aside she admitted she couldn’t quite belief she was hearing, ‘Now, Elyse, you don’t want to live with them either.’ Black lives matter, but only to black people. The Ku Klux Khan represented in office. Right-wing feeds triumphant and showing Melanina replacing an image of a First Lady taken from the Planet of the Apes. Trump a boy that went to military academy but avoided the draft to serve in the military, but denigrates those that did has become Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. You couldn’t make it up.

The FBI and CIA accuse him of being Putin’s dupe. Donald will sort it. He’ll win the war by tweets. Ewan McMullin, a former CIA officer tweeted: ‘While you avoided the draft, John Lewis risked his life for equality in America. You’ll never dream of such selfless patriotism.’

Donald J Trump settled his hash, he became President and boasted about how many Twitter followers he had in comparison to crooked Hillary. Fake news  such as ‘thousands and thousands’ of Muslims in Jersey City cheered as The World Trade Center crashed can be viewed on YouTube, alongside his pledges to build a wall along the Mexican border and make the Mexican government pay for it. The sting in the tail here is every comma in every sentence, every shady deal Trump has ever made will be uncovered. There is no hiding place when you are the American President. He asked to see Obama’s birth certificate. His detractors in a divided America will be asking to see a lot more than that.

Twitter feed, that’s where you’ll find the American President. 140 character tweets of what Trump’s policy is going to be, telling you what he and America is going to do next. There is a conflation here that Walt Disney might recognise, what is good for Donald J Trump is good for America and what it good for America is good for Donald J Trump. American Presidents are supposed to set up a blind trust, transparent so that they have no interests which conflict with that of running government and they should not directly, or indirectly, profit from the office of government. Nepotism and public office should also be divorced. The ethics committee set up to look into Trump’s financial arrangements for when he moves from becoming President elect to President started laughing. Cartoon characters are always funny, even when they’re trying to be serious. You love them or hate them and that is why Trump’s inauguration will not be a smooth transition from the outgoing President to the President elect, but the biggest protest since the Vietnam War divided America. Then again, I could be wrong on this. The business as usual model is stronger than any ideologue. Al Gore won more votes than George W Bush in 2000 Hillary Clinton gained 2.9 million more votes in 2016, both Democrats lost. To the winners the spoils. The casino President gambled and won. The billionaire daddy that says he’s too rich to care about money appoints his chum Ben Carson as housing tsar. Expect tens of millions or billions of US federal dollars to flow into the Trump real-estate coffers. Expect Trumps portfolio and investment in fossil fuels to grow exponentially. Oil is once more king. Alaska, with the help of global warming, a fish bowl open to being mined. One of his advisers – Paris Treaty on Global Warming, joke. Let’s laugh and end with that joke for a cartoon President.

Burt Reynolds summed Trump up as a fun guy, ‘but he might just start a war’.   He is the most powerful man in the world and could end the world in a tweet. And that’s no joke, but a worry. The world’s big worry, even greater than the backlash of the persecution of the poor, more worrying than the rise and rise of the super rich and the inevitable rise in global warming and pollution of our blue planet in a death march of rising acidic seas and failing crops and tens of millions on the move.  Inconceivable, as it seems, the question must be asked, like Bush, can Trump serve two terms as President? Is he despite his dimness, crafty enough, vicious enough? Or will the world end in a ball of fire first. I’m repeating myself, as Trump does. Listen to him. He says the same thing again and again and again and again, until you believe him. Funny, eh?